David Baze. "Am I an artist? I don’t know. To me, I’m a painter."
Some critics have been adoring: "David Baze is simply a great artist." Others complain: "David Baze's paintings reek of emotional estrangement. Men and women rarely commune in these light-infused scenes — their bodes are neighbors, their minds, strangers."
Baze superimposed on his painting Elektra
For a man, a moment comes while living with a woman when you find yourself looking across the gender abyss at an alien being, a different species, a Martian: a woman. Baze’s Night Train reveals that precise instant. The painting shows a woman, wearing a straw hat. She stands outside a cabin doorway, her simple skirt and blouse bathed in a nighttime purple light. She smokes a cigarette. A man, shirtless and wearing only blue jeans, sits, legs crossed, on a chair that stands against the cabin’s far wall. An elbow is propped on a table; his chin rests in his cupped hand. A kerosene lamp illumines the cabin’s interior; the lamp sheds a golden light. That painting haunts me.
Night Train. "I made a drawing to figure the composition out, then I made a color study to figure the colors out."
Baze, 46, moves with a light sailor’s step. He is six foot, even; 160 pounds wrapped inside a lean, tan body. He has half a head of brown, graying hair, blue eyes, a clean-shaven angular Scotsman’s face that knits tight and forms a quizzical expression.
I like Baze. I liked him when we were rolling through Otay Mesa, driving his ancient Cadillac convertible alongside our scrap-iron border fence, or wandering Brown Field, or eating spaghetti at Tarantino’s, or having a drink at Viejas Casino, or having dinner at his house.
Baze lives in a Spanish-style house off 30th Street in a location so private I have yet to drive to it without getting lost. Which is like Baze; there is a center to him that is his alone, and that’s it.
His living room looks a bit like an art gallery: hardwood floor, white walls, a severely styled brown Naugahyde matching couch and chair, bamboo curtains. A two-inch slab of black marble makes a dining-table top. Three chairs are arranged around the table. Seven Baze paintings hang on the walls.
"Abstraction is an extremely difficult language to speak."
Adjacent to the living room is the kitchen. Turn left, go through a breakfast nook, and enter Baze’s studio. Two rows of track lights hang down the center of the ceiling. Beneath a bank of north-facing windows stands a 12-foot-long worktable. Near the table is a model’s high-legged chair. On the floor are a half dozen coffee cans, each can filled with Rembrandt and Grumbacher pig-bristle brushes.
"Cave painters gave me my cue."
On top of another table Baze has scattered hundreds of tubes of paints with faraway names: Cadmium Red, Cadmium Yellow, Alizarin Crimson, Phthalo Turquoise, Hooker’s Green, lamp Black, Ultramarine Blue, Cerulean Blue, Indian Yellow. Sketches are tacked along the west wall and tabletops. The pads and papers have names like BFK Rives and Charrette and Strathmore. An easel looms in the room’s center. Fastened to the canvas holder is a self-portrait done in acrylics: a suburban David Baze dressed in white shirt and bow tie.
An artist needs courage. Maybe no one will ever buy even the first canvas. Maybe, for one season, your paintings will be celebrated, and then the next season, no one knows your name. You’ll never know how much money you’ll have or when. You’ll never have a reliable answer to life’s mundane, pressing questions: “What if I get sick? What about the mortgage? How do I keep the car running? How am I going to live when I get old?” Infinitely more difficult still, you have to pull magic out of yourself and you’ll never know exactly where that magic is, or what it is, or if it’s still there. Yet, you have to do it and keep doing it, and then bet your life that you can do it again. That takes guts.
David Baze is fishing on a remote Pacific beach in Baja. The fishing is good today, he’ll catch five surf perch within the next 15 minutes. Behind him, on top of an eight-foot bluff, are a dozen friends and his wife Anita. Behind that group is Baze’s 1965 blue-and-white Volkswagen van. His van has been refined and honed through years of camping Baja. In it is a tape deck, fire extinguisher, CB radio, hand tools, mechanic’s tools, pickax and shovel, spare parts, blankets, pillows, extra oil, bungee cords, and much more. A blue tarp is attached to the van’s roof and extends 15 feet towards the beach. Under it are eight chairs, four tables, coolers, lamps, dishes, cups, kitchenware, a spice cabinet, Coleman stoves, cutting block. Not one thing has been forgotten.
Earlier, Baze led a party to collect a ten-gallon tub full of mussels from a rocky outcropping a few miles down the beach. He hauled them back, left them to soak in plastic tubs filled with water and cornmeal. Tonight, David and Anita are going to provide a meal for a dozen people, as they did yesterday and will do tomorrow. Yesterday was when Baze worked for two hours on a friend’s Bronco, which was stuck in an arroyo. That was after he built a portable outhouse for everybody to use.
Right now Baze is hunched over a small slab of wood, set on the sand, filleting a surf perch. The sun trumpets its last rays of violent red. Everyone else stands on the bluff, watching the sunset. The perch is difficult to fillet and requires his complete attention. His cutting knife peels off gills, then slowly works its way down the fish’s spine. Suddenly, the perch slips off the board onto the sand. Baze grumbles an oath, retrieves the fish, dunks it in a pail of dirty water, places the carcass back on the board, and resumes cutting.
“I was born in Norfolk, Virginia. The year was 1947. I don’t know much about my father, my parents were divorced when I was four. My dad was a gunner’s mate in the Navy, she was a housewife. I don’t know much about my mother either, even though I lived with her until I was 14. She was there, but she wasn’t there. Then again, maybe I wasn’t there.
“She was a brunette, average-looking. She became a skilled executive secretary and at night transcribed tape-recorded notes for would-be authors. I have a sister, she’s younger, born a year and a half after I was. Her name is Barbara.
“We moved from Norfolk to Ohio to Texas to Illinois, and back to Ohio. Six months here, a year there. My father came from Alice, Texas, so we spent time there and time in Oklahoma. The only thing I remember about those years was going down to a storm cellar during a tornado.
“I went to kindergarten in Toledo, Ohio; first grade in Long Beach, California. My mother was always looking for an opportunity to be somewhere else. While we were in Long Beach, she married a fellow, John something-or-other. I can’t remember his name. This particular John didn’t last long ext thing I knew we were back in Ohio. I spent the second, third, and fourth grade in Toledo. My mom’s side of the family were Ohio farmers.
“By the time I was in the third grade, I knew I was actively distancing myself from these people. I was not an asshole about it, I just felt different. My eyes were opening up. By the fourth grade I was committed to slowly...wiggling out.
“Sixth grade we moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan. My mom got married again. A shoe salesman, Kirby Shoes, manager of the Grand Rapids store. His name was — you know, it’s really weird...his name was John, too. I didn’t like the guy much at all. They lasted three months as husband and wife.
“Sixth grade and all these rough, tough Michigan kids. We lived in Wyoming, a village outside Grand Rapids. Our house had some country to it; you walked to the end of our street into a hundred miles of Michigan forest.
“I don’t remember the first time I started drawing. In the sixth grade I illustrated a book on Michigan history, a class project. It was about whoever the hell was there, the Iroquois — God knows who. Bears and woods, mountains and streams, the French.
“I had a natural proclivity, perhaps not for drawing, but for staring at something in order to think about it. You don’t draw first, you don’t look at a coffee pot and say, ‘I’ll make a drawing of it.’ The attraction is the coffee pot, something about it, something about the shape that demands to be described. I had this spatial inclination.
“Next year we moved to Buena Park, California. Orange County, where Knotts Berry Farm is. By that time I had absolutely had it with my family. I was all the way gone, only kept by my need . to be there.
“My mom married again. He was actually a quite likeable guy. His name was Tom Low. I was in the seventh grade and tall as he was. He had an older son and two daughters by a previous marriage. And they all moved in with us. Suddenly these two families were together in a stucco house in a brand new tract in Buena Park, California, and they decided they were going to make it happen.
“I ended up in the garage. Tom built me a bedroom. It was perfect. By living in the garage I could come and go as I pleased. At the same time, Tom’s Scottish grandfather moved in, confined to a wheelchair and dying before our eyes. He could hardly speak. It wasn’t English, it was Scottish. Cough and brogue, that’s all he did, so he was a real weird presence.
“So there was Tom and my mom, Barbara and David, Tom Jr., Judy, Karen, and the dying grandfather. Because the grandfather was dying, his side of the family came to visit constantly. They were a very tight extended family, which was kind of amusing — I’d never experienced that before. These people stayed together, kept together, with all their faults, up to that generation.
“I didn’t last long with them. I took off one night in their ’53 Pontiac, had 15 bucks with me, drove north until I ran out of gas. I left the car on the side of the road and put out my thumb. I was out in the desert somewhere. This was 1961, I was in the eighth grade.
“The cops found me. ‘Get in the car.’ They took me to a juvenile authority center in Santa Ana. My mother drove up and we were talking and I told her I didn’t really care for the family. That was the first time it had ever been voiced. By that time the cards were pretty much on the table. T’m taking the Pontiac and driving to San Francisco.’ HINT!
“I had to go back into their scene. Now, I’m a fucking wild card. Now, they’re really watching me tight. I’m very cautious when I go out; they’re monitoring all my school activities.
“I was going to a junior high school that had a mix of rough dairyland farmers’ kids and a lot of imports; almost no one had been born in California. Half the students came from Michigan, Oklahoma, Ohio, all over the place. About a third were sons and daughters of migrant workers. An oddball mix.
“My group tended to dress well, because the Mexican kids dressed well. The Mexicans didn’t have the best of materials, but they were styling: French tip shoes, chino pants. Sir Guy shirts, hanging out in the hallways, making the whole hallway look like a tunnel of fear. Their girls were arrogant too.
“We’d smoke cigarettes, liberate cars, party with our girlfriends. We’d trade off and go from one house to another, sit around, make out, have a great time. Saturday night was date night, Friday night was with the guys. Then, in the ninth grade, something strange happened. All of us white boys quit being vatos because of...SURFING!
“Surf music. All of a sudden it came in and WHAM, we could be white and identify with something. We were all going to Self-port ran be... Beach Boys! You’ve got to realize we had been totally, except for our light skin, little Mexicans.
“It was partying to the tide at the beach. Now, I was starting to have friends who had driver’s licenses and cars. We didn’t have to hang out at our parent’s house, we had access; we could drive to the beach, Bill’s Beach, at the end of old Highway 39.
“I took off again. This time I did it right. I left with a friend, he was older than I was. For three weeks prior to my exit I carefully planted rumors amongst my sisters that I was going to San Francisco.
I knew they wouldn’t last one day after I left. I really laid it on: ‘If you tell them I’m gonna kill you.’ So for sure they told them. That gave me an enormous lead.
“My buddy and I left the day high school started. We went to Phoenix. I got a job as a busboy in a fancy restaurant where you wore a red velvet jacket. Every other busboy and waiter in the place was a Latin man, right down to the dishwashers. I fit right in.
“My family was not cruel. In most of these situations the relationship between me and my stepfathers was quiet. The real cause of my discontent was, I didn’t like who these people were.
“Anyway, my buddy and I found a house in Phoenix. That lasted for six months. I got burned out and wanted back in school. I called my grandmother and hitchhiked to Toledo. My mother agreed. The deal was, I could stay in Ohio, live at Grandma’s, if I kept my grades up.
“At school I despised jocks and despised sports absolutely. I can remember spending a whole day drawing pictures and watching a friend rehearse for a play he wanted to be in. You’re not supposed to do that, you’re supposed to play football.
“I started drawing on my own — cars, sometimes fanciful ones, sometimes not. I learned a little about perspective. My aunt was quite adept, and we would draw together. I began thinking about what a picture was.
“There was a museum school in Toledo. I had a friend going there. By the time I was 16, I realized that going to public school every day, getting good grades, was not worth it. It just seemed like too much punishment. I thought. They should let me in the goddamn museum school.’ I used to hang out in the museum — it’s a famous museum of art, has an absolutely first-class small collection. They didn’t have a shitty Manet, they had a great Manet.
“I’d walk through the doors and stare at those paintings. I’d smell them all. The place just reeked of a world apart, right in this gritty little neighborhood in Toledo. I had my museum routine. The route was like a meal. I’d go past the glass displays, tasting them like a salad, then I’d scout around a little bit and get under the oldest painting first, slowly walking towards where I really wanted to be, in the room where the Manet was. It would take about an hour. They had a Hopper, a Sargent, a gorgeous George Bellows, and quite a bit of American stuff. At the very end I’d stop before the Egyptian mummy. I’d be transported, swept away, and then, exhausted. I’d walk outside and sit on a bench.
“At school, I was an oddball. I’d hear whispers, ‘He’s from California.’ Plus, I dressed strange. I spent attention choosing my own style that had nothing to do with anything else. I’d never had an art class, had one sculpture class. I was doing sketches, portraits, costumes, stage design for some plays. It was an exciting time, running around town in a ’56 Olds, shooting pool, trying to get laid, going out with weird girls from Detroit.
“The friends I had were all of the same nature. Pretty rowdy. We had our own loyalty to each other, but once we started having sex we didn’t talk that much about it. My friend and I would get together with our girlfriends, we’d get dressed up, they’d be dressed up. The four of us would find an inexpensive restaurant downtown, then go to a movie, then drive over to somebody’s house for a little dancing and drinking.
“I had one girlfriend during high school. She was a drama major, one of the head cheerleaders. I was editor of the school yearbook’s ‘student life’ section, was working late, it was wintertime, about five o’clock. Candace Champion was standing in the hallway. I was leaving school, and she turned around and made this terribly snotty comment, ‘Oh, you’re the guy from California, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘What?’ We started talking. Within two weeks, we were going together.
“After my junior year, at the age of 17, I enlisted in the Navy. Candace had another year of high school, planned on college. I signed a four-year enlistment.
“I figured the Navy was a good thing to do. I could travel around. I never took friends that seriously, in terms of thinking it was going to last forever. I liked them and respected them but also learned to maintain a distance. I learned those skills by the time I was eight.
“My father had been in the Navy. My grandfather had been in the Marines. My uncle had been in the Army. My other uncle was an Army career man, so the military was familiar.
“So I’m taking the entrance tests, I scored the second highest on the radioman’s section. But I wasn’t allowed to be a radioman because I hadn’t graduated from high school. I remember this Navy chief saying, ‘You graduated and now you’re going to be a bosun’s mate’ — which means a deck hand.
“While I was in boot camp, I was informed that Candace was pregnant. I remember Bosun’s Mate Laird.
He was salty. One day he called me into his room.
‘Sit down, Baze. I got a phone call here. Your girlfriend is pregnant. You can put a call in to her right now, here in my office, but I want you to think carefully about the decision you’re going to make. I’m not going to advise you, but you have a career in front of you....’
“So I called and we talked. Her parents were supportive. There was no anger. A lot of our high school friends had been married under circumstances like that. Her parents said we could do whatever we wanted. They were willing to seek a medical solution if everyone was agreeable.
They threw it all back on us.
“We were in love, as much as 17-year-olds can be. We married. Because I was just starting out in the Navy, we decided she’d stay in Ohio. We figured, in time. I’d have enough rank and we’d get an apartment somewhere.
It seemed like a lock. My daughter was born in 1966. Her name is Amy.
“After boot camp I was shipped off to Norfolk, Virginia, assigned to the U.S.S. Denebola, a Navy refrigerated supply ship. First night out I puked my guts out. Finally they just make you get out of your bunk. It was a rough Atlantic crossing, but by the time we saw the Rock of Gibraltar I was salty. It was, ‘Hey, I crossed the Atlantic, man.’
“After a year I transferred to a cable-layer. We were stationed in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on the mouth of the Piscataqua River. I came aboard with a level of skill those guys didn’t have. I’d been on the equivalent of a freighter, which is real deck work. I quickly proved myself and was elevated to what was called leading seaman, the lead man on the job. With that job came the prize — moving out of the 47-man compartment. That says it all, doesn’t it?
“I would camp on my rack in the 47-man compartment, and as the ship took a big roll, all the showers and shitters overflowed and turds would float by. You’d lift your feet and stay in your rack all night. Forty-seven guys fighting and screaming.
“I worked for it and got the job, moved into a two-man room with the leading bosun’s mate, who was the boss of bosses. He was a rough son of a bitch, his name was Coffee. The truth was, an appreciation of skills is always the bottom line, and everybody knew it. That gave you the edge, no matter how old you were. If I could crimp off a line and do a bizarre splice, or if I knew something about the machinery, it didn’t matter how old I was. So what I did was, I studied a lot.
“I met a young radioman from Vermont. He was sketching in the mess and he was quite good. He was copying photographs of thoroughbred racing horses, because the captain of our ship was interested in breeding horses and asked if he would do some drawings for him.
“I saw him drawing, he had skills. He was copying photographs, but he was interpreting them at the same time. I watched him and thought, ‘Goddamn.’ I didn’t talk to him. I was embarrassed.
“The next time we were in port, I bought a sketchbook and a book on drawing. I found it frustrating, I didn’t understand it, didn't understand the terminology. I started drawing things around the ship — passageways, corridors — or if we pulled into port, I’d sketch the waterfront. At sea, in my stateroom, if I was alone. I’d get out my drawing kit and draw or go up on deck and try to get a feeling for the ship, the structure of it, perspective, things like that.
“In the Navy, you learn a lot about paint. You learn it from the ground up. I got a better grounding in how to deal with paint from the Navy than I ever got in college. The chemistry of it, how it feels with certain surfaces, the drying time, how to retard it, how to mix paint, how to brush paint on.
“I’d been at sea from 1965 to 1969, and America had slipped away. Things changed so fast, politics changed; I could feel the rumble, could feel that something was going on that was different. It seemed like college was the place to go.
“I wanted to be part of it. I wanted to get out on the streets and play again. Up until that point, my marriage was self-managing. The Navy was such an omnipotent presence that it managed the marriage. My wife and I put everything on hold.
“I got out on St. Patrick’s Day, 1969, went back to Toledo, tried to pick up the life. I got a job at Toledo Scale working night shift as a drill press operator and went to the University of Toledo full-time during the day. I was a psychology major. Every spare moment I had was spent in the extra bedroom. I’d paint out of my head. Didn’t know shit from Shinola.
“Concurrent with that, this young girl I’d married at 17 was now 21. I’d been away four years, very few visits in between, and we were now utterly different people. We grew up! I grew up in the Navy and she grew up raising a child. It took us a month to figure that out. I’d gotten more adventurous, she’d gotten more conservative. To her credit, she was a mom. Her value system had changed dramatically. This was an actress who once wanted to move out to Hollywood. We separated. I moved to California.
“I had friends in San Diego who were still in the Navy, and we got together and rented an apartment in Ocean Beach. I'd go to museums and the galleries in La Jolla. That was the only art scene there was; there was no downtown art scene. I was drawing on my own, picking up odd jobs, and collecting unemployment. I got a job at Ocean Beach Transfer moving houses around. And one day I said. The hell with this, I’m going back to sea.’
“I went to the Coast Guard, got my Merchant Mariner Certificate, which is a walk-in deal, if you’d been in the Navy. They gave me the lowest card, an AB — able-bodied seaman — that’s all you got. I took it and went to the union hall on Harbor Drive and they just laughed at me.
“The dispatcher said, ‘Look, we know you have all this experience as a bosun’s mate, but you’re an AB here.’ I said, ‘I can get on any ship in the world and steer it. I’m also a qualified helmsman.’ The man laughed. ‘There’re too many guys ahead of you. It will take three or four months before your name gets high enough on the billet rate to get out.’
“I had no idea the merchant marines had gone to shit. The dispatcher gave me a good bit of advice. He said, ‘Listen, they need men on the Great Lakes right now. If you want a gig, man, you go to the hall in Cleveland.’What happens is, guys sail the Great Lakes all summer, and in winter they drop like flies because it’s evil on the lakes.
“I hitchhiked to Cleveland, took two weeks to get there. I found the union hall, put my card down, the dispatcher looked at me, looked at my record, says, ‘You can sit here all day long with that beard, buddy, and you’re not going to ship.’ I said, ‘No problem.’ Went right to the barber shop, had it shaved off. I had no political attachments to that beard whatsoever.
“The next day I shipped out as an able-bodied seaman for the Ogleby Norton Line on the worst ship in their fleet. It was a coal burner. I shipped out as a lowly deck hand. It was good money for the day, $700 a month, plus there was all this overtime. The reality was, I made $1200, $1300 a month.
“At the end of 1970, I took off for five weeks. The lakes didn’t freeze hard that year. I hung out with my old high school buddies in Toledo, tried to patch things up with my wife, unsuccessfully. Shipped out again that spring, still trying to figure out what to do.
“This is ’71. jt was early in the season, still rough, could have been February or March. We had to go into Minneapolis and I happened to have the watch. I’m standing watch and one of the guys comes back with a newspaper. I took it to my room, noticed an article about the GI Bill.
“I gave them notice and got off in Cleveland. I bought a 1962 Comet for $400 and drove to California. I went to Orange County. I’d done a little research and heard about Fullerton Junior College. Fullerton, for a community college, had a highly respected art department. I enrolled in the fall of’72. I was 23.
“It was a joke, a fucking joke. The Vietnam War was winding down, so a lot more kids were going right into college when they’re 18. I’d been at sea six years. I’d been married. I’d been through things these kids had never dreamed of. I felt like a real weird, old, salty fucker, and I felt out of it because I couldn’t relate to them. As luck would have it, there were vets coming out of Vietnam. So, I met veterans who were my age.
“I was scared to death. Remember, I never graduated from high school and the whole idea of college, in my mind, was this Greek fraternity asshole. I thought maybe I’d take some drawing classes. I had a very sloppy attitude about it. I figured I’d take advantage of the GI Bill money coming my way, see what happened.
“My vet friends were all crazy, and they gravitated to the craziest things: drama, art, and music. They just wanted an easy gig, not a college education. They thought they already knew it all. They knew if you wanted something you could kill and get it. They knew that; they knew that for a fact.
“We became a block of students. We all got that attitude: 'Screw that four years we spent while Jody — Jody was the guy that didn’t get drafted — while Jody was fucking our girl.’
“There were three Navy veterans and one Army veteran who were art majors. We started meeting in our houses once a week, and we’d paint around each other, just for ourselves, because we didn’t like painting on campus. Then, at the start of my sophomore year, we rented a studio in downtown Fullerton. Got it for peanuts, on the fifth floor of an old office building, gorgeous big place.
“That studio in Fullerton became a real scene. Not only were artists hanging out because we had this great studio, but we also had a photo lab. We all chipped in and bought an enlarger, built a darkroom so we could take photographs and within a couple hours have big prints. We’d work from those for our paintings. We hired models, played loud music, smoked pot, painted. Weird people drifted in and out.
“All during that time we’d honk up to L.A. every weekend and go to shows and museums. We were hungry. We were really hungry. We had visited museums all over the country and in some cases all over the world. So we had another weird edge: we had seen a lot of the work outside history books.
“Students see all the great works of art in books, in the art history courses and slide presentations. What you see is a flat image. Everything has been reduced to the same size. So you don’t get the scale. You get a picture from a survey point of view, like this guy did this at this stage. What it won’t give you is the grandeur of the physical object itself. The textures, the true colors, the stunning way it feels on a wall, the way it speaks back at you: that’s what you miss.
“I graduated from junior college in spring of’74, enrolled in the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, which was, and probably still is, the preeminent worldwide school for advertising, graphics, and car design. Stayed there a year, then went back to Cal State Fullerton for my B.A. and master’s.
“By then I was a practicing artist. I didn’t understand the gallery scene. I knew it operated, I didn’t know how it operated, but I always thought cream rose to the top, so I believed if I did good work, I could shuffle right in.
“I’m biding my time, had a few shows. By now I’m into the hyper-realist stuff. Hyper-realism was a very big part of the national scene. What I liked was the sheer physical presence of those paintings. Under the best hands they really did sweep you away.
Guys like Richard Joseph, James Valerio, and Jack Beal were taking a hyper-realist technique and introducing narrative ideas. These guys were mocking the politically correct hyper-realism at the time. The PC then was no ideas, bland surface as proof of your intellectual smugness. The paintings do look amazing. You examine those paintings — say, a car sitting in front of a hardware store in a small town — and think, ‘How in the hell can anybody do that?’ And the truth is, it’s pretty easy to do. It’s just a bonehead willingness of discipline to sit there, blend paint and colors, and put it all together.
“I was attracted to hyper-realism, but I was already leaning towards narrative, trying to put stories together, based on what I observed in life, or taking classical themes from 18th-century painters and updating them. Like a moviemaker doing a new version of a film.
“It was the way I updated them that was kind of fascinating. My clue was Caravaggio. He was thoroughly trounced for using Christ and religious figures in his paintings. He didn’t paint them in the clothing and rooms of their day; he’d update them to his own period and put them in 14th- and 15th-century dress. That was a very odd thing at the time. That was my move too: I would update paintings so they had this new hyper-realist look, use my friends as models, put sailors in, stuff I knew about.
“I got the master’s in ’78. By that time I knew there was a clear choice. Move to Los Angeles, try and find a shithole to live in, or get a couple people together and rent a loft, any way you can to save money. You’re going to get a job as a waiter or taxi driver, any kind of schleppo job, janitorial job, something not too demanding. Paint as much as you can, go to every stinking art opening in town, meet people, introduce yourself, talk about their work. Generally, you make yourself noticed to the degree that you can submit slides or examples of your work, get some feedback from a gallery.
“Of course, the first thing they do, they look at you and think, ‘You graduate student, you,’ and say, ‘It’s really good, keep painting, come back and sec us in two years.’ That’s it. Until you make 50 paintings, there’s not much sense in talking to you, because they don’t know if you’re going to be around in a year.
“By then I had a hundred paintings but only seven or eight were mature — pieces where I knew what I was doing and had a line on where I wanted to go. A few nights before I graduated, I was sitting in a bar with a friend, and we went off on a tear, decided to hitchhike to Mexico.
“We got as far as Mexicali, got hung up, moved along to Guatemala, hitchhiked around and saw that whole part of the world. I came back in late ’78, broke. ‘What am I going to do?’ I’m thinking about moving to L.A. and doing the scene.
“Luckily, I had no guts. Out of nowhere Cal State Fullerton offered me a postgraduate job, teaching advanced drawing and a beginning drawing class. I was a natural for that, because I actually knew how to do this stuff, unlike many of my peers who had gone through graduate school and couldn’t draw their way out of a paper bag. They knew I could pull off a class, they knew I was organized and disciplined, so they threw me into it.
“The same week I started teaching, the guy I went to Guatemala with and I were out having a drink. He leans over and says, ‘Let’s start a rock ’n’ roll band.’ Swear to God.
“We invented it out of sheer ether. There was no reason to think we could do this; we were in our late 20s, not the time to start a rock ’n’ roll band. But we went after it. Within a few months we were doing gigs in Los Angeles at fairly hot clubs like Madame Wong’s. I was managing the band, also doing the sound. Our name was Big Wow.
“It was a four-piece, classic rock ’n’ roll outfit: drummer, bass player, rhythms, lead guitar. The lead guitarist sang, wrote all his songs.
“I wasn’t painting at all. In fact, I didn’t paint for a year. Teaching was easy for me, took a couple days a week. I spent the rest of my time on the band. I was the mother hen of the group because I had free time, and my girlfriend had a car.
“We poured all our energy into it. It started as a joke, but the boys were good enough that within a short time, we were in the middle of this late-’70s rock ’n’ roll scene in Los Angeles. In real short order, we started taking it seriously.
“At first it was a big party and then we were getting respect. We shopped tapes around and thought about making records. If we were going to go for it, we’d have to settle in for three or four years of hard-core, gritty commitment.
“At the same time, I was getting burned out. I had done too much, hadn’t learned how to pace myself. It was the winter of’79, around December. I left the band, just flat-out divorced them. I went to El Centro.
“When I was in the Navy, there were only two guys on the ship from California. I was one, and David Pangle was the other. He was an El Centro homeboy. He was a surfer and kind of a hound dog. We’d kept up with each other.
“I called him and said, ‘Look, I need a break.’ He says, ‘Come on down.’ David was an entomologist, a bug guy, a salesman for an agricultural chemical firm. He’d done well, had enough left over to accommodate me. He was married, two kids, lived in the thick of suburban El Centro, owned a nice house with a little bungalow in the back. I took the bus to EI Centro. I liked El Centro; it was a strange place then. I liked the small-town feel.
“As soon as I got there, I set my studio up in the bungalow. I looked at my past hyper-realist work and thought, ‘That’s no good, I’ve got to find something else.’ I started painting from life, discovering where my skills were, where I could go with them. I began looking around El Centro and the valley. It helped that there was no art down there. No recourse to even a single art show. Nothing, absolutely nothing.
“I painted little landscapes. I’d go out in the valley and look at a farm, or a tree, and I would try to organize It, study it, paint it, try to figure out what that meant as a realist painter. What does it mean to look at a scene that really exists? How does that mean anything? How does that translate to the viewer? How can you change it, reorient it, put your emotions into it?
“I remember a giant eucalyptus tree that astonished me because it had so much presence. I thought, ‘Can I make a painting of that, bring the presence of that tree forward in a piece that translates the way I feel about it to a viewer?’ I could have said to a friend, ‘Go down and look at that tree and experience it.’ But a painter is forced to replicate it and then take it to another level.
“Here’s a day in the life. Say when I worked the tree. In Imperial Valley, you have these vast, clean, windswept landscapes with very few interruptions, and I saw the tree and made a mental note: ‘This is where the tree is.’ A couple days later I got my paint kit together, started out at six o’clock in the morning, walked two miles to the tree. The valley has this glorious, fetid aroma to it — dirt, manure, steamy decay — even in winter. It was November, not too hot, great light, and a mist that only happens in the Imperial Valley.
“I set up and placed myself, tried to encounter that tree as if it were a unique being on the planet. That huge eucalyptus tree stood out because there was nothing else around it. That same tree in San Diego might not have been shit, but out there it meant something. I was struck by the way it wavered slowly in the morning breeze, the way it seemed to undulate and move. I saw it as an object, and I also saw it as a test of how far I could go with my painting skills.
“I made this little painting — and it wasn’t a very great painting, by the way — but the experience of painting, that was the key issue. That was part of my program, to look at a different way of going about painting, try to imbue an object with feeling, give it a presence. In that case, I failed. But it was a success in terms of the leap I made standing in front of the damn thing, and encountering it without any intellectual horseshit.
“What I found out was, encountering that tree was really hard work. I had no idea. I remember two hours into that painting I thought, ‘Why in the hell am I doing this? This is way more than I should be engaging in. This is a whole different game.’ I mean, all the leaves, and the way they fluttered in the breeze, and the light kept changing, and I was thinking on one hand, this is more glorious than I could ever draw it, and also it’s less than I want to deal with.
“I’m fighting with these emotions and whacking away at the paint. I realized that there’s more to painting — either out of your mind, or in real life, or from photographs, or from sketches — than anybody could ever comprehend. Every painter is a shuck. The better you are, the more you know you cannot approach the truth of it. The nut is right in front of you and you’re dancing around it, and you just can’t quite get it, no matter how much you want it. The best painters know when they’ve gotten very, very close and that’s damn good.
“The encounter with that live situation is so tough. If you’re alert, you know that the alertness of simply looking at it is the best thing. To make a painting of it is always a secondary thing. To make a story about it will always be a secondary thing; you’ll never, ever get anything like the encounter. The real encounter with life has nothing to do with art. The art part is something left over, and the artist has to decide, ‘Was I good enough?’
“I worked on that painting for seven hours, took two breaks. What happens is the light changes so dramatically that the painting you started in the morning has nothing to do with the painting you now have in front of you, because the shadows have changed, the light has changed. Go pick out a tree and sit in front of it for six hours; don’t paint, just stare at it. When the day’s over you’ll have seen a thousand trees. Now you tell me, which one was the right tree?
“Eventually, the light changed so much that I didn’t even know what I was painting. So I stopped and thought, ‘Man, this is a tough game.’
“I’m whipped, really tired, thought I’d made a mistake, realized I had a lot more thinking to do. I remember walking back, and man, that was a long walk. I was tired, stopped at a bar, ordered a beer. It was late in the afternoon. Some of these ag. guys, ball-cap guys, were off work sitting at the bar. I had my paint kit next to me; they looked at it and said, ‘Hey, that’s the old eucalyptus tree over on...’ They knew it.
“From that day on I looked for scenes and corners. I’d sketch, trying to make sense out of my visual appreciation of real life, how it made me feel, and how I could recombine it into an image. Could I take a tree from here, a storefront from there, a human being from over there, and pull them into a picture? That’s when I started painting pictures from elements that had nothing to do with each other.
“I was in El Centro four months. Then, in February, I had to go back to Los Angeles. I’d left art supplies behind, a ten-speed bike, and some other crap. I climbed aboard a bus and it stopped in Jacumba.
“All the years I’d gone back and forth to L.A., I’d never been in Jacumba. The Greyhound bus pulled into town, parked in front of the old Jacumba Hotel, Jacumba sits at 4000 feet, 40 miles west of El Centro, 2 miles off I-8. I’m looking out the bus window and thinking, ‘Jesus Christ, this is The Last Picture Show. ’ I was stunned. Out the window were old vintage buildings, Haze in his studio and the park, and the high desert. I asked the bus driver, ‘How long are we going to be here?’ He said, ‘About five minutes.’ I said, ‘When’s the next bus coming by?’ ‘Two hours.’‘Can I take the next bus?’‘No problem, just use your ticket.’
“I grabbed my day pack and jumped off. I stayed six hours, ambled around the town, went into the hotel and thought, ‘What a bizarre place.’ Finally, the last bus pulled in and I slogged off to Los Angeles. Jacumba is heavy on my mind. I picked up my gear in L.A. and went back to El Centro. My host, David Pangle, had a brother who was running a ranch up in the mountains.
“I packed my stuff, borrowed my buddy’s truck, drove to Jacumba, looked around, found a house for $80 a month. It was a tiny, tiny shack, had a wood stove. It’s cold in February in the mountains. I moved in and was introduced around by David’s brother Michael. He showed me how to get wood, how to get a garden going, how to live on the hill, who to talk to if you need this or that. He cut years off my education.
“Within a few weeks, my house is functioning, I got my studio up and I’m painting. Spring’s coming, and you have those great desert smells. I thought, ‘Nobody knows me, I can do whatever the hell I want.' I had enough money so I could sit down and paint.
“I settled in, began watching people and making sketches, going into the restaurant at night, making more sketches, going back to my studio. Now I’m moving away from the hyper-realism of the ’70s, and my hand is loosening up.
“At the time, the hotel was going full bore, the infamous Jacumba 10 — ten people who bought the Jacumba Hotel — were falling apart, having difficulties with the hotel. A couple players were trying to reconnoiter and regroup. The local real estate guy got pegged into that deal and asked me if I would co-manage the hotel with him. He knew I had some experience in advertising and graphic design and felt I might be able to help him spin the hotel around.
“So he and I entered into an agreement with the Jacumba 10. I got a salary, suite, car, three meals, the works. We became co-managers. He ran the day-to-day; I was in charge of advertising and letting people know what was going on. I saw my role as a short-term announcer, plus they had a great product: a beautiful place, weird setting, Jacumba was still living in the ’40s.
“I’m living in the hotel. I had a big office overlooking the town. It had phones, a fridge, desk, and all that crap. You’d go off a door into a bathroom, and then through another door into my little living room, and from there to a bedroom, and another bathroom.
“I told myself, ‘I’m going to be a hotel manager.’ You have to realize, I didn’t know how to manage a hotel. I thought, ‘I have this huge mansion. I live in a mansion. It has hot tubs and pools and servants and a restaurant. I’m going to throw a party.’ The minute I got in place, I called my old friend Bob Mitchell. Bob comes right down. He knows a lot about advertising, real estate, and marketing. I wanted to get some pointers on how to work this hotel, how to pitch it.
“I got Bob a room of his own. We’d take long walks, talk about possibilities, which was very arrogant. We had no power in that town; we were just a couple of shitheads liking the lifestyle. Here was our power: we did have power to alert people to a wonderful thing. That’s what I think we all understood, that if we could alert people in the correct way, then a snowball would start, and the rest would take care of itself.
“Bob and I put together a program of print ads. The owners had no idea that they should be advertising their hotel. We brought in graphic designers from Los Angeles, gave them per diem, said, ‘Come on down, help us work this out.’
“We revamped the whole paper look of the hotel, created brochures, researched magazines, and placed advertising. All of a sudden, within a spectacularly short time, the place is swamped by a new generation of people, all in their 30s.
“The whole time I’m doing this, in the background are the Jacumba 10 and their relentless warfare. There were ten owners of the hotel — you can imagine what that was like. They pumped serious money into this deal, and they were reassessing. After six months the hotel was showing a profit, not much, but a profit. To their credit, they had a good idea, but the follow-through, with the amount of players involved, doomed things.
“The party lasted six months for me. It went on longer for other people. At one point I thought, ‘You know, I can do this, I’m having a great time, I could do a hotel.’ Then I got into a conflict with the co-manager. I saw larger possibilities. There was no way for me to convince him how to rock and roll through this thing. He presented me with an either-or situation. I said, ‘Fine, I’ll take the or.’
"As an artist, the essential elements were still in place. I had my studio, I could paint. My friends were coming in from L.A. I was taking my little vacations now and then; it was all quite glorious. I had a couple years on the hill. I was not a mountain man, but the people from the mountain and I hung out together. On purpose, I kept a wall. My studio was my studio, and I was working on different issues, and everybody respected that.
“I started making forays out of Jacumba every summer. I had friends who lived in Seattle, and I’d go to Berkeley or Santa Barbara or wherever. Different places each year.
“I never gave up my Los Angeles connects, the buyers and a few galleries. I was still moving a little work. For an 18-by-24-inch piece —this would be 1984 — I was getting five, six, seven hundred dollars. Mostly I was a road salesman. I’d wrap up four or five paintings, usually they were small pieces, something I could pack around. I’d catch the Greyhound in Jacumba, try to get the 7:00 a.m. bus. One stop in El Cajon and then, bam, downtown San Diego. Often, I’d get on the Amtrak because I didn’t like the bus station in L.A. Also, I had clients living along the coast. I had a client in San Juan Capistrano, so I could stop or not. Or I could stop in Santa Ana or not, or Fullerton or not, or shoot off to L.A.
“I’d arrive in the evening, would already have a place to stay lined up. I’d have dinner, and either the client would come over to where I was, or I’d borrow my friend’s car and schlep the paintings over to the client’s house.
“Sometimes my clients were in office buildings. I knew a guy named David DeKinnis, a diamond dealer. I packed three pieces and took city buses to his office on the 34th God-knows-what floor. I’d dress city-style, an old vintage sport coat. We’d sit and talk, he’d say, ‘What have you got?’ Or he might say, ‘Hang on a second, let me call some other people in.’ An intercom button would be punched and I’d hear, ‘Hey, come look at this guy’s work, he’s a friend of mine.’
"The paintings were wrapped in plastic. I’d unwrap them, put them on chairs, and David’s associates would arrive. I’d stand near the pieces and watch their faces. I’d watch their eyes, see what piece they studied and then ask questions: ‘Do you like that?’ And they’d say, ‘It’s kind of interesting.’ I’d say, ‘What’s so interesting about it?’ I learned to ask questions that can only be answered by a yes.
“I’ve sold paintings out of the back of a car, in a parking lot, in downtown Los Angeles like a rug dealer. There are two David Bazes, the guy who makes the paintings, and the guy who knows how to sell them. I have never had problems separating those two human beings.
“I could leave Jacumba with four or five paintings, come back a week later with a couple thousand bucks. For hound-dogging around it was great, because I knew how much I could live on, so I’d just make these forays once in a while.
“I’m starting to meet artists in San Diego. If I had a piece in a show I’d go to the gallery and be introduced to somebody and then somebody else, and there would be a party afterwards. I already knew a few people who had ancillary positions in the art world, like Don Hughes, who was a design director at the Museum of Natural History, and Darcy Fohrman, who was the design director at the San Diego Museum of Art.
“I still thought I’d return to Los Angeles with my big show as soon as I could accumulate enough work, but times were rough. I’m painting away, living out in the desert. I’d have to scrounge wood, mill it at a friend’s house, bum gas fare, or take a bus to El Cajon and buy one piece of canvas for one painting to work on, and if I was lucky, a couple tubes of paint. Then get back up the hill and paint that one painting. At times I was painting on the back of old doors or pieces of plywood. It was good times, but it also hindered me in trying to create a body of work that looked the same on canvas, that had consistency.
“I had a show in Seattle, and I went up there to do most of the work. My Seattle dealer at the time, Larry Reed, who owned the Rosco Louie Gallery, invited me to a party of artists. Lucy Schwab happened to be there, and we started talking. One thing led to another, and we started dating. Lucy was in Seattle for the summer, before heading back to Yale, where she was going to school. The summer came and went, she went back to Yale, and over the next semester break she visited me in Jacumba.
“Another semester went by, and Lucy decided to go to Berkeley, but she had to take a year off, they wouldn’t let her in right away, so she spent it with me in Jacumba. She got work as an intern at the San Diego Museum of Art. Then, she enrolled in Berkeley, and I traveled back and forth from Jacumba. For a while, I had a studio in Oakland. That period was a real jumble, hack and forth, back and forth, until she graduated, and we returned to the mountain.
“A friend of mine, Suda House, the chairman of the art department at Grossmont College, called. A teacher had quit, and the department was in a quandary. She knew I had credentials and hired me on the spot. It was an emergency situation; they had to get somebody in there.
“I was a realist artist with fundamental drawing skills, so everything fell into place. I thought, ‘Well, this is good. I’ll teach a semester or two.’ I took home $450 a month, which was fine, that helped a great deal. I’d drive down on a Tuesday, teach my class, stay at a friend’s who had an extra room. I would shop, teach my class on Thursday, drive back to Jacumba, and paint my ass off for four days straight. Just be absolutely disciplined, staying on it, get up in the morning and paint all day.
“It was during this time that Lucy and I got married and we moved down to San Diego. Living in the city took some adjustments: I didn’t have a place to paint, money was short.
“I got a studio on India Street, in a warehouse down by the Lindbergh Field runway. As the year rolled on, I needed money. So, I did what I used to do in Jacumba: I’d have a studio show, mat up my drawings and studies, add a few small paintings. invite clients over for one day only, and usually make a couple thousand dollars.
“I was expecting my average crowd of 30 or 40 people, fairly hard-core fans and supporters of my work, people that had bought from me over the years. And, sure enough, they came rolling in, but then, all of a sudden, all these other people rolled in, and then another wave arrived, it turned out, that was the day of Artwalk. Come to find out, there was a bus dropping people off at the Design Center; the damn thing stopped right around the corner.
“People were getting out and walking by my studio to get down to Zapf s Gallery in the Design Center. My doors were open, passersby saw other people going in and out, figured it was part of the deal.
“They were just looking around for the most part, but it added a sense of excitement to my show, and I did well that day. Sometime in the afternoon this fellow introduces himself: ‘My name is Mario Uribe.’ Said he liked the work, wondered what I was doing, never had seen my stuff before, and what’s going on? So he goes back down to David Zapf s Gallery, tells Zapf about it, then Zapf comes along, look*ed at the work, gave me his card. A couple days later we had a meeting. I went over to look at his gallery, agreed to have him represent me. We set a date for a one-man show seven months later.
“I had my first show at David Zapf's in 1989. It was a huge success, a lot of press coverage. Susan Freudenheim was writing for the San Diego Tribune at the time. I felt she had really gotten it.
“Suddenly, I had a lot of visibility. At that time the Museum of Contemporary Art, in conjunction with a donor, purchased one of my pieces, which helped a great deal. It was a nice, good splash. It justified all the support I'd gotten over the years from friends. That was really good.
“That was a great year, not only sales, but good press, written by people who were seeing my work for the first time. Leah Ollman, of the Los Angeles Times, was one of my best critics, because she never failed to bust me for the correct things. Then Mark Lugo wrote a great article about me for San Diego Magazine. Things were sailing.
“I was trying to make my pictures look like freeze frames as much as possible. I like a film quality, cropping. I don’t like a lot of open air around my figures, I want a slightly claustrophobic feel that puts the viewer in the picture.
“If you have an image of a man and a woman together and there is tension there without pointing to a specific tension, then it begs the question of tension itself. You almost want to look for the perpetrator, or the victim. I tried to look at men and women in a much broader way, understanding that all relationships have strange things going on, from happiness to sadness to exhilaration. I was trying to think about relationships in a more universal way and present images that would put my questions on canvas, not my solutions.
“After ’89, things escalated dramatically. I was able to buy more and better materials. I could go to movies. It became easier for me, even though on the face of it, my income was a joke compared to a Jack In The Box assistant manager. More money gave me more opportunities to do more work. I could go out and buy materials. I hired an assistant, who’s still with me, to help stretch canvases and build frames. Money speeded up the process dramatically.
“Seven or eight months after we moved to San Diego, after living through six years of a relationship via correspondence and short vacations, Lucy and I discovered there were differences about our long-range plans. I was working hard and not paying enough attention to what was going on, and Lucy was working hard at her job and having a great success at it. We were seeing less of each other. I was getting frenetic trying to make my career lift off. We decided to divorce. We still have a relationship of sorts, we correspond with each other — she’s a brilliant correspondent. She remarried and moved to England.
“During this time I found myself involved in several shows at once. I had a show in Las Vegas, a show at Grossmont, and I was working on paintings for David Zapf. I had taken a full-time job at Grossmont College, teaching for a friend who had a medical leave of absence. That year of getting a divorce, teaching full-time, having several shows going at once, was as nutty as you can possibly imagine.
“When you’re with a gallery, hopefully, you have a solo show every year or two years or three years. It depends how much you work. Some very gifted artists only have a show every three years, because they’re still in a position where they’re working a full-time job, or they work in such a way that they can’t fill a gallery space. To have a solo show you’ve got to be able to put your stuff on the walls. For the last five years, I’ve had a show every year at David Zapf's. I’ve been hanging between 25 to 28 paintings, several drawings. I make 40 paintings a year.
"Relative to the size of San Diego, the art scene is not very large. Doesn’t approach the Chicago art scene or San Francisco or Seattle. Those cities have three or four times as many galleries of the quality of say, Mark Quint or David Zapf or Thomas Babeor.
“The scene here is small, but it’s stronger than a lot of artists would like to admit. There’s a base of knowledgeable collectors who respect and collect San Diego artists. Twenty years ago, if you had money, you’d buy Los Angeles artists or New York artists exclusively. It’s still not great, but it’s changing.
“An artist will have an opening at one of the galleries and I’ll go down, see other artists, somebody will ask, ‘What are you going to do after the opening?’ The places we go depend on where the gallery is. There aren’t any artist’s hangouts in San Diego. In Seattle there are art bars and theater bars. There, artists drop by places like the Virginia Inn to talk to each other. There’s nothing at all like that in San Diego. In Seattle, all the dealers are within six blocks and you can see nine or ten shows in one night.
“There’s no regionalism about San Diego artists. I don’t think any of us would say, ‘Yeah, we have the San Diego look.’ I don’t know what that would be — a bikini and a beer maybe. There’s no feeling like we’re part of something.
“Probably Manny Farber makes the most money. I don’t know how much he makes, that’s between him and his dealer. At one time he was a film critic for the Village Voice; now he’s the most famous painter living in San Diego, has an international reputation. He’s in his late 60s, early 70s. His paintings are based on elements he has around his studio — trains and cars and notes and oddball still lifes, put together as a collage. They’re heavily designed pieces, very playful, and defy perspective. For instance, you’ll see a train floating around from one point of view, and then nearby, some small object from another point of view. He has a practiced hand and a great eye.
“In a good year I make $30,000; in a crap year I make $10,000. I do have my teaching job; it’s bogus and puny pay, but it helps. But I am the supreme budgeter of all time. When I have a good year I might have to float for three years on that. Right now, because of the economy, my income is way down, but I’ve crafted my life so that I don’t get hurt by that. I don’t owe a nickel to anybody. I made $19,000 this year, and it took every bit of that to keep me afloat, because like all artists, I have a high materials bill.
“The most I ever got for a painting was $10,000, and that’s my high end right now. It felt good, you’re damn right it felt good, but I also knew I could cream off a hundred bucks for a good dinner, and then back to the budget because you never know.
“I think people buy my work because the pictures I make are the kind of pictures they would make if they were painters. Without exception, all my clients have a warped view of the world. They’re business people and doctors and lawyers, but that’s their daytime job. Their view of the world is agreeable with mine; it’s a little bit warped and kind of sexy.
"I am in the trenches of the art world, where most artists are. There are art stars, but 98 percent of all artists, regardless of I how respected they are, are in the trenches. I’m going to paint whether I make money or not. I’m going to paint because that’s my job in life. A trench artist gets up and paints every day, and they don’t give a shit which way the wind blows. At my age, I have no choice, I have no way out. And I’m very happy with that idea.
“In the San Diego art world, I think I am respected for what I do, although a lot of people don’t agree with it, but I think they respect my tenacity and that my vision is intact. Where do I stand on the national scene? Well, I don’t stand. I have some work in some national collections, I have some national collectors, but I’m not well known outside of California, not at all. And it might be that way for the rest of my life.
“There are only four or five top galleries in San Diego, and I’m part of that. A gallery owner might have four or five “A” artists who put on major shows, and then he’ll represent a lot of other people on a minor level, because you need to bring them through the system. Most galleries are trying to hone down to 12 artists. Twelve artists are a lot of artists to work with; you can’t have 12 one-man shows a year, you can have, maybe, 9. When I came to David Zapf s, I was already slightly established and older, and definitely a career artist, so David did not have to do much touchy-feeling with me. If I was 20 years old, he might show a couple paintings of mine, he might like them, he might check for collector reaction, and I might, over the years, elevate myself to one of his top artists or not.
“I often don’t know what my paintings mean — in some cases I do, but for the most part I don’t. It doesn’t matter what I think, that’s the beauty of it. The more open-ended it is, the better the piece is. If a buyer attempts to nail me down on what a painting means, I dance around as much as possible. You can look at one of my pieces and have a completely off-the-wall take on what it means. You tell me about it, suddenly you’ve opened my eyes and I say. I'll be damned, I never thought of that, you’re right.'
“My job is to make sure that the metaphor that I use, as a representational painter, is accessible to you. My biggest argument with abstraction is that for the average Joe, and even for the average well-educated person, abstraction is an extremely difficult language to speak. When you know how to speak the language, it’s a beautiful language, but the audience is so tiny. I choose representational painting. Cave painters gave me my cue.
“When I paint, I have an idea and a composition and a color system already preset. I’ve worked out all those problems ahead of time. I’ve got the paint all mixed, and depending upon the complexity of the painting, I may or may not lightly sketch in some of the imagery, but usually I prefer to start right off with paint and start building up the image directly, drawing with a brush. I have everything preset because while I’m painting, that’s all I have to think about. I can completely and absolutely work in a spatial frame of mind. I don’t have to stop and think about a different kind of color or composition.
“I might spend two or three days mixing paint, making small color studies to make sure that once I get on a large canvas I’m ready to go. I’m not interested in painting by accident or allowing the painting to evolve from some small kernel of an idea. I have the full idea. I’ve got it nailed down. I’ve done sketches and thought it through. As a result, the painting goes fast.
“Say the Night Train piece, the portrait of a woman smoking a cigarette outside a cabin and, inside, a man in blue jeans sitting by a lamp. I had all the sketches done. I used a photograph of the woman and made sketches from that. I made a drawing to figure the composition out, then I made a color study to figure the colors out, and which colors I’d be mixing up in my big paint pot. Usually a composition study is just to find out what size I’m going to make and what the format will be. Then, from the pencil study I’ll start fooling around on a very small scale with my brushes, experimenting with colors until I get them right, until I get the look of a picture on a small scale that has color harmony and a balance that will tell me how much paint I’m going to need and what kinds of colors I’ll use.
“The studies are usually very quick little things. Once I get a feel for the colors, then I abandon the study. During the work of a painting, if I run into a problem, then I’ll go back to the color study and rework it once again at the study stage, and then go back to the painting once I’ve solved the problem.
“I make representational paintings, pictures of recognizable people and places that are relatively realistic, not unlike classical art. There’s a level of velocity that I want to be apparent in the execution of my work. I’m rethinking this whole idea of loose brush work, what’s called a painterly hand, making the brush work with the image. I’ve been using my hands and fingers more during the painting process to eliminate some of the facility that a brush gives you. Diego Rivera would wait until the very, very last minute to begin a mural. He’d make everybody nervous, but as he said, he was too facile. If he started on a piece and got it done on time, it would look constipated. So he waited until he was forced to paint with so much speed that he couldn’t think too much. I like that idea.
“I’m shying away from the psychological pieces of men and women that I’ve painted in the past. Right now, I’m more interested in individual people, not specifically as portraits, but just the individual human being. That’s a different kind of tension. I’m getting more interested in landscape. That could be a function of getting older, because I’m starting to see the most difficult challenge of all is to paint a landscape that is also fraught with psychological meaning.
“I’ve taken a lot of turns on the art trail. Today, right now, am I an artist? I don’t know. To me, I’m a painter. The word artist is the most abused word in the English language. Everybody is an artist. It’s a crock of shit. The reason I could shift around all through my life was because I thought that art, like anything else in life, is basically problem solving. That’s the art, when you take disparate elements, put them together, and make a cohesive whole. That’s art. To me art is artful, the way you do something is artful.
“I want to live an artful life whether it’s doing dishes or making that painting or sitting at that computer or shooting pool. It all will be art. The hotel was a painting, it was just a painting, that’s all it was. I left the hotel, now I’m standing in front of a real canvas, no problem, now I’m standing in front of this white thing, let’s make a picture. And I still believe that. I think it’s an attitude, just an attitude, and you should bring to bear all your artfulness to whatever problems are in front of your nose.